Expat, Expat Life, gin

Do You Know Why Expats Drink Gin?

Gin and tonic is an iconic and yet slightly negative symbol of expat life.  The drink contributes to the image of the idle, drunk, spoiled expat living a life of luxury in far flung tropical locations. But do you know the real reason expats first started drinking gin and tonic?  You might be surprised.

bottle of gordons gin, lime and tonic, associated with expat life a to z

Let’s wind back a few centuries……

For a long time European explorers, colonials and missionaries in malarial zones would drop like flies. There were many causes of death including an assortment of tropical maladies, but malaria claimed the most lives by far.  There was a famous cautionary rhyme warning those who dared to set foot on the Slave Coast of West Africa.

Beware, beware the Bight of the Benin, for few come out though many go in.

Another version stated ‘Only one comes out for every fifty that go in’.  In those days, far flung travel was extremely risky business.  The chances of a long and healthy life were slim.

The discovery of quinine was however a game changer.

Quinine, found in the bark of cinchona trees of South America was realised to have antimalarial properties as far back as the 1700’s.  Quinine was later dissolved into carbonated water, making it easy to ingest.  The medicinal properties of the drink caused it to be named tonic water.  It subsequently became a staple of the colonial diet as it helped to prevent malaria.

However, quinine has a foul bitter taste.  In 1800’s India the East India Company’s army started mixing tonic water with other things to mask its awful bitterness.  Their winning formula was a combination of gin, ice, sugar, lime and tonic water.  This is how the gin and tonic (also known more simply as G&T ) was born.  Yes, it started life as a palatable medicinal drink to fight malaria.  The addition of lime had the added benefit of warding off scurvy.

In the intervening years the quantity of quinine in tonic water has been drastically reduced and instead we rely on myriad other malaria prophylaxis like Chloroquine, Doxycycline or Lariam to prevent malaria.  The drink is now refreshing rather than medicinal.

Colonials have long since disappeared and yet their custom of drinking gin and tonic in tropical climes has endured, it’s a hangover (no pun intended) from times gone by and has become associated with modern day expat life.

…and that ladies and gentlemen is the actual reason that expats to this day remain so closely connected with gin and tonic, although many of them don’t know it or probably didn’t know it until they read this post.  You are most welcome.  Cheers!

15 thoughts on “Do You Know Why Expats Drink Gin?”

    1. Not sure I totally agree that colonials have long since disappeared though. In many cases, we (and our bitter colonial legacy) are still very much alive and well in Africa.


      1. Aah, Colonialism – a deeply thorny topic. Of course there are some positive and so many negative and traumatic legacies of that era, I wasn’t going to go into all the knotty details. I just meant that the archetypal colonial who would have drunk the G&T to ward off malaria is no longer around. Expats today tend to be far more globally minded and travel from all corners of the world to all corners of the world.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. There are some cool historical facts in here! The amount of Quinine in tonic is nowhere near enough to do anything to ward off malaria, though it sure would be convenient as I down G&Ts (and other gin based drinks) on a very regular basis in spring & summer. Gotten to be a bit of a gin aficionado living here, but I’ve loved it since I was in my 20’s. My American friends are like “Gin, who the hell drinks Gin?” Funny enough, i’ll be writing my own post on gin in the next couple days, based on an experience I had this weekend.


  2. Also, thank you for saying that lime juice is the proper ingredient in a G&T. Many countries use lemon and it’s just not right! 😄 That being said, limes can be difficult to find and expensive to buy here in SA!


  3. This was really interesting! I am an ex-pat (not a lazy one I hope) gin loving brit living in Switzerland and enjoyed finding out more about my favourite tipple! Thanks for sharing! I love all things gin and tonic related. I have just started a poetry blog here on WordPress and today’s poem is related to gin in case you have time to look? Wishing you a gintastic weekend, Sam 🙂


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